Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Columbia Road in monochrome

Here are some of my images taken at Columbia Road flower market, in monochrome.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Reflections on street photography


Whilst working on my People and Place assignments I really enjoyed street photography, being part of the street scene and waiting for the right moment to fill the frame. 
It also gave me a good opportunity to approach people and speak to them. There are many wonderful stories out there and we can chose to hear them and discover them. There were many people that I met whilst out there on streets of London hunting for images. I remember their stories and enjoyed taking photos of them.

Many of the images did not make it to the course submission such as the one included above but I remember the stories woven into them and I’ve learnt a lot from the experience. 

Whilst exploring street photography I discovered my fascination with any kind of reflections.  
The following three images started this theme and I am now very interested to continue this in my work.  Through these reflections I am keen to explore the space outside, the world inside and the boundaries between them. 

Monday, 8 December 2014

People and Place: my final assignment

Notes on my creative journey: from a concept to an image 

A public bench makes a fascinating study. Having previously used a park bench as an object for my earlier assignments and exercises[8], I decided to continue exploring the theme in the final assignment.   
The bench attracted me because of its long history, universal existence, and its many uses and interpretations. 
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannia[9], benches were used widely by the Romans as seats and were wide enough to be used for sleeping and eating from. They “were the most common form of seating in medieval halls at a time when a chair was a rare luxury reserved for those of high status.” The civic benches at plazas in the14th Century Tuscany were used for theatre performances and tribunal hearings, which conveyed “the sense of civic action and stimulated popular use.”[10]
Its long-standing history has secured the bench a prominent place in the everyday people’s life all around the world. 

In many ways the bench represents a part of our shared cultural heritage that is instantly understood across the world. 

A bench is often used as part of the visual language to convey certain feelings and emotions – depending on the context they could range from loneliness to love and romance. Its regular appearance in visual and verbal clichés is in itself a fascinating area of study. 

A bench as a public space has an endless variety of uses. It can be a home for homeless or a quiet spot to enjoy a quick lunch. It can be a place to meet with friends or a part of someone’s daily routine. It is one of the few places where social division can be played down and where talking to a stranger is still acceptable. 
It is a meeting place for strangeness and familiarity, similarity and difference, ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, public and private. 

Not surprisingly, the use of public spaces has been the subject of many academic studies and research projects, some of which are mentioned below. 

The first theoretical concept that helped me to develop my thinking on the subject is the idea of the city as an ‘ecology.’  Kevin Lynch (1981:119)[11] described human settlements as a ‘complex ecology.’ This understanding is built on seeing the urban spaces as living and constantly developing. A strong connection between the space and its occupants is the key to the ‘city ecology’ concept. As Kevin Lynch commented, ‘most utopias fail to keep space and society simultaneously in mind.’[12]
Building on the ecology of human settlements, a concept of the city making as a social process is helpful in this discourse. In her most recent work ‘City by Design’ (2013:1)[13], Fran Tonkiss describes how people shape, create and re-create their environment day by day.    
Applying the ecology of a place to the assignment, public benches can be seen as the living spaces that change from one moment to the other depending on who and how is using them. These living spaces are created and re-created with every passing moment, with every new situation and every new visitor. 

It seems fitting to describe the public bench as a ‘situational place,’[14] a kind of on-going theatrical performance, with the visitors and passer-byes being the actors. These situational bench-places ‘emerge and vanish with the performative interactions that create them’ (2010; 44).[15]

This is evident when trying to ‘capture the right moment’ with the camera as there is a constant flow of emerging and vanishing individual moments-performances.

My exploration of the ways people experience public spaces started with observing and taking pictures of some strangers - individuals and groups of people - using public benches. Can the photography help us to understand their experiences? If so, what can we learn? 

From my experience, observing people in public places has similar qualities and is as engaging as watching a theatre performance. A bench helps to create a suitable and well-defined stage and there are plenty of actors who appear to be willing to perform. 

Lunchtime city 

The shooting angle and the composition of the image above were used to maximise the sense of a staged performance. Using a 70 mm lens helped me to stay relatively unnoticed. The lines created by the pavement slabs are leading the eye to the bench where the real life situation is played out in front of the viewer. We observe some strangers sharing the same space: some are eating in silence, or drinking and chatting, whilst others are emerged in ‘people-watching.’

The bold angle of the shot, the presence of the wall and the geometrical lines leading up to it - all of these make the viewer (quite mercilessly) a part of the picture putting them right in front of the observed. This creates slightly uneasy dynamics and adds some tension to the scene. It seems that the tables (or benches!) may turn anytime as the occupants of the benches may switch their attention to the viewer and become the observers themselves at any moment.  

Lunchtime city raises a question whether a public place could still be seen as a space where spontaneous social interaction between strangers takes place. The inhabitants of Lunchtime city share the benches but their experiences of the present moment seem very different. Their facial expressions caught by the camera range from (what appear to be) loneliness to boredom, and from disapproval to content. 

Lunchtime city points that where there is a potential for a spontaneous social interaction, there is a chance of meeting ‘the Other’ and a possibility of withdrawal or misunderstanding, conflict or friction. 

Looking down

The theme of interaction and withdrawal is explored further in the Looking down image. Shot from the gallery of a shopping centre in central Cambridge, it captures an everyday situation that can be observed in any urban centre around the globe. 
Our daily lives are full of the fleeting moments like this one – all compacted together until they become just a kind of background noise. It is only when an individual moment is frozen in time and is observed closely, it reflects back a mirror image of our modern urban way of life and how it affects individuals who are caught in it. 

Then we recognise how the urban pressures make people look, feel and behave. We are able to read the signs of their body language, the direction of their gaze, their posturesthe way they shield themselves from the surroundings with various mobile devices – often choosing not to see, hear or communicate with their immediate environment.  

As M.Grimaldi and P.Sulis noted in the context of modern public places, ‘it is paradoxical that in the very moment when everyone can potentially reach every different place or being, in contact with numerous cultural realities, cities instead deny their original attitude and become places of avoidance.’(2009:262)[16]

Still, as long as the opportunity for a contact exists, there is a possibility that it would be used. As Storper and Venables pointed out, ‘being close enough literally to each other allows visual contact and emotional closeness, the bases for building human relationships.’[17]

A deeper understanding of the ways that people use and experience public spaces is at the heart of this project. In this context the discussion on the issues of identity and culture, and similarity and difference is helpful. The focus on identity and diversity highlights that people might experience and use urban places differently, as observed in the images Lunchtime city and Looking down. 

Looking at the Facing away image, even the same individual may use the same space in various ways depending on their needs, emotional state and changing situations and ‘in line with their own shifting subjectivity.’(2000:42)[18]

Facing away

Monday, 1 December 2014

People and Place: my final assignment
Notes on methodology and planning 

Introduction and background
This assignment explores the relationship between the people and place with a focus on a bench in a public place. It aspires to be a visual exploration of the many lives and the uses of the public bench. In ‘City by Design’ (2013:1)[1], Fran Tonkiss discussed how places are constantly re-created and re-lived through everyday uses. This approach is at the heart of this study as it examines the places through the people’s experiences.

The nature of this assignment introduces certain limitations that would need to be considered: this work is not intended to be a comprehensive study on the subject but an exploratory introduction. My intention is to continue working on this theme in the coming year and use this assignment as the first step and the foundation to build on. 

Method and planning

To plan my work on this assignment I used the method described in the ‘Behind the Image: Research in Photography’ publication[2] which was on the recommended reading list for the course. I also practiced the tools and techniques I have learnt through the People and Place course.

Having discussed some emerging topics for my assignment with my tutor, I first developed my proposal (assignment brief).
When starting to plan the project, I drew a mind map of my ideas.

This helped me to organise my thinking and prepare on a practical level, for example, by creating a list of potential locations and a possible timetable of work. The Edward De Bono’s six thinking hats method[3], which I used only briefly here, helped to ensure that I don’t miss anything significant out.

When thinking through my assignment work I always gave a special consideration to my audience.

My next step was to carry out my background research consisting of the literature review and a number of other photographers’ portfolios. I spent a couple of days working in the Cambridge University Library as well as researching various online sources. 

As part of planning my assignment work I looked at other people’s image collections and portfolios. I found it particularly useful and inspiring to look through the images produced by some Magnum photographers and a selection of the street scene portfolios mostly shot in 20th century. The black and white street image collections by John Deakin, Ilse Bing, Brassai, Francesc Catala-Roca and Marianne Breslauer showed the streets as places for spontaneous and chance encounters, as places where public and private lives meet – this was something that I was interested to look out for and capture through this project. Although many of their images can be regarded as timeless, it was interesting to note how the city scenes captured over the last century have gradually been changing.
I look at some colour image collections, including for example the street photography by Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Jeff Wall. I specifically picked these two photographers who employed very different techniques in their work. Jeff Wall’s images capture mostly well-planned and arranged scenes in comparison to the spontaneous situations depicted by diCorcia. My approach with this assignment has been both to plan some of my shots and to capture the spontaneous situation so I found it useful to look at the techniques used by both photographers.
I drew inspiration from the work of the modern street life photographers, including the black and white images by Chema Fernandez[4] documenting the street life of Oviedo, Spain, and the online image galleries by Japanese photographers Hiroki and Tatsuo Suzuki[5]. Their work, although very different from one another, often captured the sense of confusion, isolation and vulnerability of the momentary street encounters. Their images alluded strongly to a sense of transience and impermanence.
When preparing for my practical work on the assignment, I looked at the image collections by Rut Blees Luxemburg, in particular the ‘Caliban Towers I and II’, and ‘London: a modern city’.[6]  Her images tell the story of the city life. Her exploration of the neglected and decaying spaces conveying the feelings of loss and emptiness left a lasting impression on me.
Whilst doing the online research for the project, I came across two photographers who carried out photographic projects concerned with park and public benches, Jon Cartwright and Eugene Kotenko[7]. Finding out about their work before the completion of my own project was helpful: for example, I realised that my working title Bench life was already in use.

Public vs private space
Public space as a neutral ground
Borders and boundaries in public places
Presence of benches in clichés, assigned and assumed meanings
Users and uses of public places: groups and singles, families, animals; doing all things human and un-human; routines and rituals   
Emotion: fear, love and romance, boredom, desperation, loneliness and connection, sadness and joy
Link between the past and the future: a connecting point?
Segregation and fragmentation Vs connection and engagement
Interaction and the lack of interaction in public places
Interaction with: strangers, acquaintances, friends, devices and gadgets, animals, yourself.

To summarise, doing the project research and looking at other photographers’ work helped me to become more aware of the issues I wanted to explore through my project. Based on the research and the mind-mapping session I put together a list of topics, which I felt I would like to explore as part of the longer-term project. 

Having done my background research, I reviewed and finalised my plans. I then started my practical days out on locations. From the start I had a very good idea of the kind of images I wanted to have for this series so it really helped to plan my days out, making adjustments for the weather and lighting conditions.
I worked on a number of locations in and around Cambridge and London. Due to the weather conditions I had spent longer than anticipated shooting images and had to make some repeat visits to the same areas. Some of the locations that I originally planned to include appeared to be unsuitable for my project (for example, I was disappointed to discover that the area around Westfield shopping centre did not have many traditional bench seats). This meant that I had to review and adjust my plans as I went along.
I enjoyed working on this assignment more than on any other project I have undertaken this year. The ‘public space’ theme fascinates me and I am very excited about continuing my ‘public benches’ project in 2015 using the list of ideas I put together. I also think that the time and effort I put into planning of this project have helped to make it a very positive and enjoyable personal learning experience. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

Project: Special processing

Selective processing and prominence

Finally, I looked at the post-production ways to redress the balance between people and place in my images.

There is only a slight variation in brightness between the Images 1 and 2 - just enough to make the juice seller more visible and to lit up the inside of the stall window. It is a very small and subtle change but it seems to add weight and rebalance the picture, for example, the figure in back seems somewhat less dominating.  I used the adjustment brush available in Adobe Lightroom to change the brightness.
Image 1

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Project: A matter of balance

Balancing figure and space

As we already know, the difference in weight and significance could vary dramatically between the elements of each image. I am including some images below that helped me to explore this in more detail and to learn how to control them.

All of the images in this section were taken on Columbia Road in London.

Images 1 and 2 essentially present the same setting; what is different is the position of a young lady who is browsing at the second hand book stall. Image 1 showing her standing at the further end of the stall so our attention switches from the boy with the camera back to the girl and then to the man in a blue shirt just behind her. Her dominating position in Image 2 grabs our attention straight away, it is her eyes and her face expression that hold our attention and don't let us go. This approach makes for a much stronger human element and is capable of creating a personal connection with the picture.

Image 1

Image 2

Monday, 15 September 2014

Project: People - unrecognisable

Making figures anonymous

My work on the Sense of a Place assignment made me learn a lesson about the importance of weight and balance. 

Each element within the photo frame has a certain weight which determines its capacity to influence the viewer. It does not always correspond to the actual size of the element. For example, as I found out from the previous exercises, a single figure small can have a lot of weight and change the meaning of the picture. It is up to the photographer to decide how to play it. The photographer has the power and ability to make one element of the photo stand out against another or make it less prominent. There are many techniques to achieve this including for example altering the composition, increasing the contrast, or changing the focal length. 

In the images below the presence of people is important because it helps us to learn something about the place itself. 

In Image 1 we see a family of holiday makers enjoying a nice sea view on a city break in Oslo. The family members are sitting together sharing a bench and watching a cruiser ship passing by. We only see the family from the back so we don’t see the people’s faces so it’s hard to make up their identities, face expressions or moods. Their presence however helps us to determine the scale of the passing ship. It also gives us the sense of connection, a link between the people and the ship sparked by their curiosity. 

Image 1 Static - from the back 
The presence of people in Image 2 helps us to see the city through the eyes of its residents. We see a couple sitting on the grass enjoying a picnic and the view of the city marina. As in the previous image, the way the people are positioned makes them unrecognisable and as a result, less prominent. Their presence, however, brings the picture (and the city) to life. 

Image 2

The image 3 takes us back to the Borough Market in London. The essence of any market is in its people: it is the connection and association with people that make it what it is. A photo of a market without people would be unusual showing the place as lifeless and purposeless (unless is taken to illustrate the contrast of a market place outside of its opening hours). On this photo we see the whole background space filled with constantly moving people. We can not make up the individuals’ faces but their presence, the size and the movements of the crowd gives us the feel for and sense of the place. It also helps us to judge the size and the scale of the market and the overarching railway bridge. Our gaze follows the two figures of the girls in the foreground as they draw us closer to the market. Again, we see them from the back with their faces being slightly blurred by the movement and obscured but it is the direction of their movement and their general appearance that help us to interpret the picture. 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Project: Quiet places, busy places

Busy traffic

Photography allows us to see the unseen as demonstrated by the images of human traffic patterns and flows.

I've always been fascinated by the flow of the human traffic. It's been one of my favourite subjects to record with my camera.

Earlier this summer I made a visit to the Borough Market in London which offered me a great opportunity to watch the tidal flows of the market customers and onlookers. A small selection of  images from that visit was included in my previous blogposts and I am sharing one photo from the same visit below.

Perhaps, one disadvantage of the market as a setting for this type of image is the lack of any proper elevation points to observe the crowds from above. There is only so much you can see from the ground level! Still, this is a wonderful place to observe and record the patterns of the human traffic flows.

Bear in mind that using a tripod is essential and if you have a tripod on you, you will be approached by the watchful market wardens who will ask you to leave if you don't have a permission to photograph.

Image 1. London Borough Market

Another opportunity to observe and record the human traffic flow presented itself during my visit to Oslo.

Oslo has some wonderful museums and here is a photo of my personal favourite place to visit.

The Viking Ship Museum is located on one of Oslo's islands and features a specially constructed building to house a real, full size Oseberg Viking long-ship.

I loved the feel of the museum and was appreciative of the fact that the museum wardens did not seem to mind me taking photos.

I was also pleased to find an elevation point which allowed me to take some photos of the crowds flowing around the boat. It made the whole scene look and feel alive as if not just the waves of the visitors were embracing the boat but the boat itself was silently and slowly sailing through the crowds.

Adding to the mystery of the scene, the wall-mounted lights made the ceiling look greenish - I reduced but decided against removing the tint altogether in Photoshop as I thought it suited the setting.

Comparing images 2 and 3, the image 2 gives us a better understanding of the setting as we are able to see more of the museum building itself. It shows us the nature and the function of the building;  is it easy to see from the photo how and why the space was thought through and designed in a very particular way. I think it also better shows the interaction between the visitors, the ship and the building itself even though the people's figures appear to be rather shadowy and blurred.
It is interesting to notice that in my mind and memory, the photo had much stronger associations with the impermanence and the transient nature of things than the actual experience of observing the scene!

Image 2. Oslo Viking Ship Museum

Image 3. Oslo, Viking Ship Museum

My next set of images was taken on a busy afternoon at the Liverpool Street Station. Using the Aperture Mode of my camera allowed me to play with and vary the exposure time and the depth of field to achieve some different effects. I also varied the focal length to get the desired composition. 
ISO was set at 50. 

Image 4: The blurred lines of people's walking were achieved with a 4 sec exposure at f20.
In this shot I focussed on capturing the intense gaze of the man with a box and the flow of people around him and at the background. 

My lesson of working on these images is about the importance of observation and spending time finding out and understanding the ways in which the human traffic flows.    

Image 4. Liverpool Street Station

With images 5 and 6, I was trying to pull back to capture a large number of people waiting for the announcements on the ground floor of the station.

Whilst observing the crowd of people from above, I found that some things about their behaviour were making me feel uncomfortable. For example, I found it unnerving to see so many people standing still and intensely looking in one direction - there was something very unnatural about that. The fact that all these people were turned away from the camera was also very uncomfortable. I decided to capture this whilst varying the amount of movement within my images.

Image 5 has only some hints to the movements within the crowd whilst Image 6 shows the patterns of the movements quite clearly. It is also full of the ghostly "half-present, half-gone" imprints and traces of the human figures amongst those few who stayed still and so were fully exposed. These ghostly images could be brought to life even further using the tools of Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom - more on this is in the follow-up exercises...

The exposure makes all the difference between Image 5 and 6: the first image was exposed for 3.2 sec whist the second required 6 seconds exposure. I used a 30 mm lens for these photos.

Image 5. Liverpool Street Station

Image 6. Liverpool Street Station

Finally, a few more images to illustrate my additional learning points.

The best way to show the human traffic flow is by contracting it against the stillness of the surroundings. This works equally well with the groups of people who stand still. Whilst on this assignment, I was constantly screening the setting in search for any small groups of people who were chatting away so to capture them against the flow of the people around them. Images 7 and 8 illustrate this point.

Image 7. Liverpool Street Station

Image 8. Liverpool Street Station

My next lesson is all about the timing: there are lulls and surges of the human traffic and at times the station appeared almost empty. To capture the human traffic, it is important to be there at the right time!
Image 9. Liverpool Street Station

One more lesson: it helps to look for patterns of colour as the results can be fascinating - see the example below.

Image 10. Liverpool Street Station

Finally, consider the black and white where it fits the theme. These ghostly shadowy figures looked more like bopping and washed out blotches of colour before I desaturated this image.  

Image 11. Liverpool Street Station

A variation on the human traffic theme (below) was shot in at the Bullring Shopping Centre in Birmingham. This time the flow was created by the moving escalators rather than walking people.

With the Image 12, I composed the shot to make the space for the three different escalators moving in opposite direction. I made a few shots and then chosen the images with most attractive combination of colours/ contrast. I also wanted the still advert to be featured in the shot contrasting against the movement around it.

Image 12. Bullring SC, Birmingham

With the Image 13, I zoomed in on a smaller section of the escalators and made a faster exposure to get more defined figures of people. On reflection, I still prefer the first shot as it has more purpose to it.  
Image 13. Bullring SC, Birmingham

Finally, with the image 14, I pulled back to show the wider setting. We are able to see the people spilling out of the shops on the floor below and queuing up for the escalators as well as the blurred colourful flows of the human traffic stretching up and down the image frame. 

From the technical point of view, it was easy too execute the images in Bullring. The lighting was bright and stable, the human traffic patterns were highly predictable, the escalators' speed was consistent and so was the flow of the human traffic. There were no lulls at all, just a constant stream of people's movement - up and down, and down and up, crowded, stifling, mindless. Oh, the insanity of the shopping culture! May we wake up from this great delusion! 

Image 14. Bullring SC, Birmingham

Monday, 8 September 2014

Project: Quiet places, busy places

A single figure small -II

Thinking further about the impact and the meaning of a single figure small, the selection of images below helped me to analyse this in a variety of different settings.

In image 1, there is a sitting figure featured inside a cathedral. It is positioned at the lower right quarter of the image and blends in quite well with the tonal range of the surroundings. This means it is quite possible to miss it at first and only realise it is there when following the rows of chairs towards the well-lit up altar at the back of the image.

The image would certainly look and feel differently without any people present, equally it would have a different feel if there are a lot of people captured in the shot.

The presence of the figure and its positioning within the frame certainly makes an impact though I wonder if it might also introduce an element of a cliche, leading the viewer to a certain way of perceiving this image.

Image 2: I could not help and had to take this photo - the opportunity attracted me as it showed a small figure facing a large cruiser ship passing by. To make the impact even more significant, this person seemed to be standing on a single rock perched out of the water and was surrounded by the sea.

To emphasise the scale of the cruiser ship I made sure that the tiny specks of human figures dotted around its deck area are included in the picture.

I positioned the man's figure at one of the cross points of the frame's grid to make the full use of the rule of thirds.

It won't be easy to miss the black figure as it stands out so well against the blue sea water all around it.

The single figure makes a strong point here - without it the interpretation of the photo would be totally different.

I think it is quite light and humorous and it makes me think about the human as the Creator, the world we made for ourselves and the human vulnerability of facing the man-made technological miracles and devices.

Image 3 present us with a slightly different setting.
Here we observe someone sitting on a wooden decking boards outside of a building, facing away from the camera and looking out at the sea.

Similar to the previous two images, the figure is quite anonymous - it would be difficult to make many assumptions about the person as they are too far from us and we don't see their face.

Again, observing the rule of thirds I dropped the figure to the lower left corner of the image. The lines of the decking areas and the outline of the building on the right hand side lead the viewer's eye to the man's figure making it difficult to miss it.

When taking the photo I could not help noticing that the person's reflection was missing from the window reflection. This made me think about the impermanence and how things sometimes don't seem what they are and how our reflections do not always match our perceived reality. So, for me as the creator of this image, the human figure was one of the decisive elements of this picture. I hope it plays a certain role for my viewer too.

Finally, the image 4 present us with a moody and foggy summer night scene. Once again we are by the sea, there is a building on a right hand side of the image and a small dark figure positioned slightly to the left. The figure is dark and very small. It seems insignificant, lost in the fog and the darkness of the night. It is easy to miss, though its relative darkness makes it stand out against the grey and lit-up background.

The person is moving away from us and we can track the line of the street lights along the route that they seem to follow.

In this image the figure seems so insignificant, merely a punctuation mark lost in a vast and dark space. Nevertheless, it is there to play a very important role - it connects the different elements of the image together. For some, it might perhaps bring a conclusive meaning or simply add a point.

Some conclusions from this exercise:

- A single small figure can make a significant impact, draw a point, and add a meaning to your image. Think carefully what it is you are trying to say and why you need it in the picture.

- In terms of the composition, its positioning within the frame is important so think where you want it to appear. The positioning could change the dynamics of the image.

- Contrast plays a role here as well - how easy or hard is it to spot? Use darker or lighter background to set the figure against it.

- it is worth to know and plan the movement of the figure (if it is moving) - is it moving in or out of the frame? Change the composition accordingly.

- Practice, practice, practice - things become more natural and faster with practice.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Project: Quit places, busy places

A single figure small

What do you feel and sense when facing a vast space?
What do you feel and sense when you spot a single small figure moving through the vast space?
What do you feel and sense when looking at an image of a single small figure moving through a vast space?

There is a viewer.
There is a single small figure moving through the vast space.
There is someone who captured the image of a single small figure moving through the vast space.

What do

Is it a mere punctuation?
A speck of dust
Lost in the vastness of space?

Does it make you feel lonely?

Do you think about the man and the Universe
Your life
Or the life without you?

Does it move you
Leave you indifferent?

Is there a sense of
Breaking free

Is there a feeling of

Does it call for your attention?

Does it emphasise, highlight or make a point?

What is the point?